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Movie Review: Lincoln – A Towering Disappointment

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Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln starring the amazing Daniel Day Lewis in the title role worries me; it seems the director of fantastic films such as Jaws and Schindler’s List has lost his way as a filmmaker. If true, that would be a sad day for all lovers of cinema, because Spielberg is one of the best directors in film history.

It is easier for me to tell you what’s right with Lincoln rather than what is wrong. The most essential piece of the puzzle is Lewis as Lincoln, a towering figure played by an actor of equal stature. Lewis is impressive in the role, and as he stares at the camera for long moments (sometimes way too long ones at that), you get a feeling that you are looking at the face of the 16th president.

Unfortunately, that is not enough to carry the film. Nor are the other great actors who are lending Lewis support – Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Joseph-Gordon Levitt (Robert Lincoln), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), and David Strathairn (William Seward) add considerable thespian weight, but the film still sinks to the bottom. The question I asked myself is “Why?”

The first scene of the film provides the answers. With the backdrop of war being so crucial to the story, we get our only battle sequence. Spielberg shows he doesn’t forget what none of us can from Saving Private Ryan, but then he completely abandons this and the film takes a turn toward character study – and that is how it progresses for the rest of the way.

Of course, the most important character here is Lincoln, and we get plenty of him. We see him as master politician, loving husband and father, admirable leader, and good friend. All of this is wonderful in a book, but in a film we need something more (much, much more).

I am sure the critics who have praised this film are doing so in deference to Lewis and Spielberg, whose resumes are undeniably impressive; however, the film drags on and on (2 hours and 29 minutes). In one scene when Lincoln starts to tell yet another story, one character screams and says he can’t sit through another one. The enraged fellow stalks off the set, and I felt like I wanted to join him.

I think the saddest part of all is thinking about the film that this could have been. The “drama” that Spielberg tries to force feed us is all the machinations that went into passing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. While this is an interesting historical piece, it would have been much more suitable on the History Channel and not in a movie theatre. The conflict is here, but as the film drags on, it seems like it never will end. I judge a movie by how many times I look at my watch, and during the course of this one I did so countless times.

I think credit must be given for cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), set decoration (Jim Erickson and Peter T. Frank), and costume design (Joanna Johnston). The film clearly establishes setting in extraordinary fashion – you feel transported to 1865. I am certain with 12 Oscar nominations under its belt, that this film will take home some gold, maybe all of it, but sometimes in the past the best film didn’t win and that will be the case here for certain.

Lincoln can be appreciated for the craft of making the world of 1865 come alive and for the superior performance of Lewis as Lincoln, but otherwise it is a towering disappointment, as big and empty as that stove pipe hat that Lincoln wore. We can only hope that this is an aberration and that Spielberg will bounce back to true form with his next production.

Photo Credit: cbsnews.com

About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • JW

    I disagree. I thought the film was fascinating, alive with ideas, and evoked a time past vividly. Your review seems to echo the sentiments of a culture much too accustomed to being entertained by non-stop action and cheap thrills, and sadly much too out of touch with quiet intelligent dialogue and storytelling.

  • Igor

    Maybe it requires a foreign moviemaker to portray such an American icon.

  • James Nelson

    Igor, that could very well be true, but then American films have been making historic figures into Saints for years. There is a really good movie to made about Lincoln and probably any of the founding fathers, but at this stage in his career, I don’t believe that Spielberg, as good as he is, is the director to bring those stories to the screen. I want to see Lincoln the human being, with virtues and flaws.

  • Igor

    Maybe a standard Hollywood dramatic bio-pic can’t do the job.

  • Thomas

    I would enjoy a film about Mary Todd post husband. She was reported to have worn 59,000 in cash sewn in her petty coat in Chicago in the 1870s Or Wilkes Booth’s killer. a man who castrated himself..Little known historical data.

  • Jim

    After the novelty of the set and actor wears off which happens in first minutes,it becomes super boring..mostly uninteresting talking. I fell asleep. They should have used the “Lincoln” miniseries movie script staring Sam Waterston as Lincoln and Mary Tyler Moore as his wife. Watch that one instead.

  • c

    i am with Jim, just super boring.. when i go to the movies and pay money i am wanting to be entertained…action yes, drama yes…if i wanted to be this bored i could stayed at home saved my money and watched desperate housewives…